Hypnosis Definition

The  term  hypnosis  is  often  shrouded  in  misconception,  myth,  and  apprehension  because  most views  about  hypnosis  are  influenced  by  entertainment  stage  shows.  These  shows  often  highlight participants’ engaging in strange and often embarrassing behaviors. However, hypnosis is consistently reported  to  be  an  effective  and  reliable  technique in  many  domains  (including  medicine,  dentistry, and psychology) for the treatment of a number of physical  and  psychological  issues,  including  pain management  and  addictive  behaviors.  Hypnosis  is a cognitive behavioral process using the influence of suggestion to bring about changes in thoughts, perceptions, feelings, memory, and behavior. Successful hypnosis is associated with situations in which (hypnotic)  suggestions  are  more  readily  accepted  and acted upon by the participants. Indeed, hypnosis is a psychological technique available to athletes and exercisers to facilitate the mindset for peak performance and regular exercise. The nature of hypnosis, hypnotic procedures, theories of hypnosis, and the applications  of  hypnosis  to  sport  and  exercise  are outlined in the following sections.

Nature of Hypnosis

Hypnosis is a process that involves an interaction between  the  hypnotherapist  and  participant  and typically  combines  the  procedures  of  visualization, relaxation, and the presentation of hypnotic suggestions.  Hypnosis  is  usually  characterized  by extreme relaxation, intense concentration, and an increased  responsiveness  to  hypnotic  suggestion. Suggestion  is  an  important  facet  of  hypnosis  and refers to the issuing of verbal statements—that is, words and metaphors of how a person would like to  think,  feel,  or  behave—by  the  hypnotherapist to  a  participant.  Suggestions  are  provided  during hypnosis  to  alter  perceptions,  thoughts,  feelings, sensations,  and  behavior.  Further,  post-hypnotic suggestions may be presented to participants during hypnosis that are intended to trigger responses affecting  behavior  during  a  normal  waking  state. For  example,  post-hypnotic  suggestions  may  be presented to help a soccer player feel more calm, composed, and confident during training and competition situations.

Fundamental  to  hypnosis  is  determining  the degree  to  which  individuals  are  susceptible  to hypnosis.  Therefore,  many  measures  of  hypnotic capacity  and  susceptibility  have  been  developed and  evidence  demonstrates  that  from  10%  to 15%  of  all  individuals  are  highly  responsive, 10%  to  15%  are  almost  completely  unresponsive,  and  the  remaining  majority  of  individuals are  able  to  respond  to  some  but  not  all  hypnotic procedures.

Hypnotic  suggestions  are  considered  effective when  they  are  presented  to  participants  when they are in or entering a trance. Participants in a trance  may  look  as  though  they  are  asleep,  but a hypnotic trance is different from sleep. Indeed a person in a trance is aware of their environment, is relaxed, will respond to suggestions, and can usually remember later what transpired in the trance. Trance  allows  access,  via  suggestions,  to  the unconscious  mind  that  holds  memories  and  feelings  that  are  below  the  level  of  conscious  awareness but exert an influence on behavior, thoughts, and  emotions.  The  properties  of  trance  typically include intense relaxation, time distortion, and an increased tolerance of discomfort and pain.

Hypnotic Procedures

Hypnosis usually includes four phases. Phase 1 is based around preparing the participant for hypnosis by educating them about hypnotic procedures. In  Phase  2,  a  process  of  induction  and  deepening  occurs  that  typically  involves  relaxation  procedures  to  enhance  participants’  susceptibility  to hypnotic suggestions. Phase 3 is where the therapy or change will happen. When a participant reaches a deep level of hypnosis, suggestions and also posthypnotic suggestions are presented about the way the  participant  thinks  and  behaves  when  alert. Phase 4 of hypnosis is about bringing the participant out of hypnosis and alerting them to the surroundings. In addition, participants may then use self-hypnosis  to  further  increase  the  acceptance and  the  effects  of  suggestions.  To  illustrate,  athletes can use self-hypnosis procedures as part of a preperformance routine, further enabling them to acquire an optimal performance state.

Theories of Hypnosis

Generally,  theories  of  hypnosis  fall  into  one  of two  camps:  state  and  nonstate.  A  state  perspective  presents  the  effects  of  hypnosis  as  a  result  of trance  states,  altered  or  divided  consciousness,  or dissociation.  For  example,  a  trance  state  is  posited to be responsible for increasing a participant’s acceptance of hypnotic suggestions. In contrast, a nonstate  perspective  views  the  effects  of  hypnosis as a consequence of positive attitudes, motivations, and expectations held by both the hypnotherapist and  participant.  To  illustrate,  a  hypnotherapist may create expectancy in participants that hypnosis will be effective for them and that they will have certain experiences and responses.

Applications of Hypnosis

The  amount  and  breadth  of  sport  and  exercise psychology   literature   demonstrating   the   efficacy  of  hypnosis  is  currently  somewhat  scant. However,  the  research  to  date  has  revealed  positive effects for hypnosis in increasing optimal performance states like flow and peak performance, augmenting  the  use  of  mental  imagery,  reducing precompetition  anxiety,  influencing  perceptions of  effort  and  physiological  responses  at  rest  and during  treadmill  running  exercise,  and  enhancing  athletes’  self-confidence.  For  example,  in  a recent study using a controlled group design, data revealed  the  immediate  and  long-term  effects  of hypnosis  interventions  on  soccer  players’  self-confidence  and  shooting  performance.  Future researchers should consider evaluating the efficacy of hypnosis on other important psychological factors necessary for optimal sport performance (e.g., concentration,  anxiety,  and  motivation)  using controlled group designs.

In  sum,  hypnosis  is  a  potentially  viable  and effective  strategy  available  to  coaches,  athletes, and exercisers for bringing about meaningful psychological  and  performance  gains.  To  illustrate, during preparation for an important competition, hypnosis could be used to increase relaxation and concentration,  therefore  reducing  muscle  tension and distraction. Further, the presentation of positive  suggestions  prior  to  and  during  competition about the feelings and emotions that relate to performing  successfully  may  increase  the  likelihood of  an  athlete’s  experiencing  increased  motivation and  feelings  of  confidence  as  well  as  reducing anxiety.


  1. Barker, J. B., Jones, M. V., & Greenlees, I. (2010). Assessing the immediate and maintained effects of hypnosis on self-efficacy and soccer wall-volley performance. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 32, 243–252.
  2. Heap, M., & Aravind, K. A. K. (2002). Hartland’s medical and dental hypnosis (4th ed.). London: Churchill Livingstone.
  3. Lynn, S. J., Rhue, J. W., & Kirsch, I. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of clinical hypnosis (2nd ed., pp. 641–666). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


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